Only six months ago, the media was full of optimistic predictions about a rapid and dramatic economic recovery due to surging demand and mass vaccination. Joe Biden’s presidency was supposed to be a decisive turning of the page on Trump, showing like FDR that “government could work” including through significant social programs and taking more serious measures on climate change as well as restoring the standing of U.S. imperialism globally.
In recent weeks, however, Biden’s popularity has fallen to new lows and the Democrats have suffered electoral defeats that clearly warn that, on the current trajectory, they will lose control of Congress in the midterms in 2022.
It’s very clear that the Biden administration is in crisis; the “honeymoon” is long gone and unfortunately the left in Congress has failed to put forward an independent working class position.
How We Got Here
Biden took office in January after a year in which hundreds of thousands died unnecessarily due to Trump’s criminal mishandling of the pandemic, and after an attempted coup following Trump’s loss in the 2020 elections. Biden sustained his initial popularity through passing another stimulus bill that put money in ordinary people’s pockets, and through ramping up vaccinations which promised a “return to normal” on the horizon.
This optimistic scenario soon came undone. Biden declared “independence” from COVID on the 4th of July, which turned out to be a bit like George Bush declaring “mission accomplished” in Iraq. Vaccinations stalled, and the massive Delta spike dashed hopes that the “end” of the pandemic was near. Deaths reached a daily average of over 2,000 per day by late September. Incredibly, more people have died of COVID in the U.S. in 2021 than in 2020, and the year is still not over!
The Delta spike also dented the economic recovery. In recent months, it has also become clear that the supply chain problems are not easing, but getting worse, and are leading to the highest inflation levels in 30 years. The Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, and the head of the Federal Reserve, Jerome Powell, repeatedly said that the supply chain and inflation problems were “temporary” and would be resolved rapidly. This is clearly not the case.
On top of that, massive dysfunction within the Democratic Party has put the Biden agenda at a standstill. There has been endless wrangling on how to pass further elements of their agenda including the bill for traditional bridges, roads, and rails infrastructure as well as the bigger Build Back Better bill which included social programs – paid parental leave, universal pre-K, extension of health care benefits – and measures on climate change.
We have had the incredible spectacle of a couple of corrupt Democratic Senators, one with extensive ties to coal interests, forcing Biden to scale down the wider bill, and then to scale it down further. With any meaningful action on climate change in the bill defeated, Biden was forced to go to the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow empty-handed. While the House has now passed a version of the scaled-down Build Back Better, which reintroduced some elements of what was stripped out, this still has to pass in the Senate. There is plenty of reason for skepticism on what the final bill will look like, or even if there will be a final bill.
All of this shows how the more “far sighted” or rational sections of the ruling class are not able to assert themselves and push through measures that are broadly in their interest if they want to tamp down the extreme level of polarization and preserve the system of capitalist democracy that has served them so well historically. Because the failure to push through measures that would materially benefit ordinary people while the economic situation deteriorates opens the door very wide to the Republicans. And there is no doubt that the Trumpist right-populist grip on the GOP is very solid.
And while ineffectually trying to push through limited “progressive” social spending, the political establishment remains diametrically opposed to measures that would permanently improve the lives of ordinary people like Medicare for All or a cancellation of student debt.
The Right Strikes Back
The consequence of Democratic weakness and dysfunction was evident in the outcome of the elections at the start of November. Democrats lost the governor’s race in Virginia, a state Biden won by 10 points last November. They almost lost the governor’s race in New Jersey, despite the polls showing them well in the lead.
These results are nothing short of catastrophic for the Democrats. With Trump no longer a clear and present boogeyman, the Democrats can’t seem to come up with a clear message. Republicans have effectively focused the media narrative on mask and vaccine mandates, while the Democrats did far too little to build mass support for what the Build Back Better bill initially represented. At a time of deep uncertainty, the Republicans point to things that genuinely activate their base such as resisting vaccine and mask mandates, even if these are actually leaving them less safe. The Democratic candidate for governor in Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, focused instead on the existential threat of Trumpism rather than any positive proposal.
But the Republicans are also gaining by pointing to the very real phenomenon of inflation. Even in its initial, more substantive form, Build Back Better wouldn’t have addressed the sky-high price of gas, which has hit an all-time record of $4.86 per gallon in California. And things can actually get worse for the Biden administration with winter setting in. Over half of U.S. homes are heated with natural gas, heating oil, or propane, and those fuels are forecast to be between 30% and 54% higher than last year. Wages are up for workers overall, but inflation is running even higher meaning that, on average, workers are actually falling behind. If Biden’s answer to this reality is to try to force voters to focus on the uninspiring infrastructure bill, and a severely watered down Build Back Better plan (assuming it gets through the Senate), next year’s midterm elections are likely to be an absolute bloodbath for Democrats.
Looking for Someone to Blame
Of course, MSNBC and the rest of the liberal pundits have been looking for someone to blame for the failures of the Democratic establishment and the Biden White House. They have the usual scapegoats: the left, and the “white working class.”
In Virginia, the Republicans focused their messaging not just on opposing COVID safety mandates but on attacking the alleged introduction of Critical Race Theory into school curriculums as part of trying to whip up a backlash to Black Lives Matter. The attacks on CRT and on vaccine mandates certainly played a role in mobilizing the core, harder right part of the base. But the main issues that shifted people towards the Republicans were economic uncertainty and disappointment with Biden. The conclusion should not be that the white population has turned decisively to the right or toward “white supremacy.” But the failures of the Democrats are indeed (again) pushing many people into the arms of unabashed racist reactionaries.
A different sort of backlash to BLM is happening inside the Democratic Party. In city after city controlled by the Democrats, even limited measures to redirect police funding agreed in the wake of the mass protests in 2020 have been replaced by moves to “refund” the police using the rising levels of gun violence as the excuse. Eric Adams won the mayoral race in New York City with significant support from Black and Latino workers. He is the city’s second Black mayor and a former cop who promises to reform the police, but has also come out in support of a reintroduction of a “modified” version of the hated Stop and Frisk program that targeted Black and Latino youth in the early 2000s. Adams has come out swinging against the left and is a demagogic corporate politician. But BLM’s failure to develop an ongoing mass democratic movement rooted in the realities of the wider Black working class has opened the door to the likes of Eric Adams.
The decisive defeat of a ballot measure in Minneapolis, the epicenter of the Black Lives Matter uprising, to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new “Department of Public Safety,” also points to the unpopularity of vague progressive slogans that are disconnected from concrete demands that resonate with working people. The establishment has successfully linked “defund” the police to “abolition,” which does not resonate with working class people and is impossible in the context of capitalism. Notably, another ballot measure in support of rent control passed in Minneapolis showing again that working people are not broadly turning to the right.
There were other high profile defeats for progressive/left Democrats including India Walton who ran for mayor of Buffalo and was strongly supported by the Democratic Socialists of America. However, DSA and progressives did not lose across the board: Robin Wonsley, a DSA member in Minneapolis, was elected to the City Council as an independent socialist, and there were other progressive and left gains in other cities.
Still, overall, left progressives nationally have seen their momentum cut across, because they have failed broadly to adopt an independent working class position and instead leaned on an alliance with a section of the liberal establishment.
The Weakness of the Progressives in Congress
In the immediate wake of the election outcomes, the bulk of the Progressive Caucus in the House of Representatives, led by Pramila Jayapal, capitulated to Biden by voting for the infrastructure bill and abandoning their leverage for the wider Build Back Better bill. This was in response to a direct appeal from Biden that his presidency was on the line. Jayapal and House progressives were more afraid of being blamed by their “friends” in the White House than in maintaining even the limited position they had staked.
The stand taken by the Squad in voting against the infrastructure bill because it was not tied to the wider bill was positive, but was not understood by most people. This is because of the failure of the Squad to mobilize or even articulate to ordinary people what they are fighting for, because they are trapped in their alliance with Biden and Pelosi.
The entrance fee to this alliance with the establishment against the Trumpist right, and against the right wing of the Democratic Party, has been very steep for the Squad and Bernie Sanders. It has required that they abandon their own programs – including fighting for Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, a $15 minimum wage and the rest of the demands that inspired millions in recent years – and of course, any suggestion of mobilizing people in the streets.
Where to Now?
For the left to continue on the path that has been taken by Sanders and AOC is extremely dangerous. It means accepting the framework set by the very people in the Democratic establishment whose ineptitude and bankruptcy got us Trump in the first place.
The political situation in the U.S. cries out for the formation of a mass left party independent of the Democrats and all corporate influence. Bernie Sanders’ two presidential campaigns, although ultimately trapped in the framework of the Democratic Party, pointed in the right direction. They had a program of bold reforms and took no corporate money.
The only way we will defeat the right is through building a mass working class-centered movement that fights for what working people actually need. It means returning to Sanders’ program of 2016 and 2020 and, crucially, going beyond it. For example, it is past time to build a real fight to bring the energy sector into public ownership if we are going to have any chance of preventing catastrophic warming. It means pointing beyond the framework of capitalism whose continued existence is pulling us towards multiple catastrophes. Even to win Medicare for All, one of Sanders most popular demands, is clearly going to require the decisive pressure of a mass movement that is not afraid to deploy the social power of the working class. This is the task that the left must set itself, and achieving this task requires political independence from the Democratic Party.